Background: A major step in the higher plant life cycle is the decision to leave the mitotic cell cycle and begin the progression through the meiotic cell cycle that leads to the formation of gametes. The molecular mechanisms that regulate this transition and early meiosis remain largely unknown. To gain insight into gene expression features during the initiation of meiotic recombination, we profiled early prophase I meiocytes from maize (Zea mays) using capillary collection to isolate meiocytes, followed by RNA-seq. Results: We detected ~2,000 genes as preferentially expressed during early meiotic prophase, most of them uncharacterized. Functional analysis uncovered the importance of several cellular processes in early meiosis. Processes significantly enriched in isolated meiocytes included proteolysis, protein targeting, chromatin modification and the regulation of redox homeostasis. The most significantly up-regulated processes in meiocytes were processes involved in carbohydrate metabolism. Consistent with this, many mitochondrial genes were up-regulated in meiocytes, including nuclear- and mitochondrial-encoded genes. The data were validated with real-time PCR and in situ hybridization and also used to generate a candidate maize homologue list of known meiotic genes from Arabidopsis. Conclusions: Taken together, we present a high-resolution analysis of the transcriptome landscape in early meiosis of an important crop plant, providing support for choosing genes for detailed characterization of recombination initiation and regulation of early meiosis. Our data also reveal an important connection between meiotic processes and altered/increased energy production.